Oct 27, 2016 12:38PM
Choosing a personal trainer: What to look for, what to avoid
If your trainer behaves like that, start running — away.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 250,000 fitness trainers and instructors in the U.S. That's a lot to choose from. Some of their clients have horror stories; others refer to personal trainers as lifesavers.
First, some horror.
"I have club feet, and my trainer tried to get me to do things that were impossible for me," says Sara Ross, 34, a small-business owner in Lawrenceville, N.J. She'd had surgery as a child to synthetically lengthen her Achilles tendons, and was looking to improve her body's functionality and flexibility. But the trainer at a country club gym wasn't a good listener.
"I told her my ankles didn't have the flexibility to do a full squat," she says. The trainer pushed her to do it anyway, with added weight. Ross heard a pop in her Achilles. The trainer asserted it was all in her head. Ross stormed out of the session, never to return. She had trouble walking for weeks.
"Training is something you do for someone, not to someone; You're looking for a facilitator, not a dictator," says Florida-based trainer Nick Tumminello, who was named the 2016 Personal Trainer of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
He warns people away from "push through the pain"-type trainers.
His description of a good trainer? "They make it about you. Good listener. Someone who asks you questions about what you want rather than say what they want to inflict on you." A trainer needs to understand a client's goals and devise the safest and most effective method of reaching those goals, he says.
Beware of the hard sell. Monica Weber, a 39-year-old midwife in Ontario, Canada, says it happened to her twice.
She'd had a membership at the GoodLife Fitness chain since 2002, doing basic workouts on her own. In 2010, she inquired about hiring a trainer. The introductory sessions, she says, "were all a big sales pitch. He made me feel like I had a lot of problems he needed to fix. It would take a year and a half and cost $10,000."
She balked at the cost and says no thanks. Three years later, she tried another GoodLife trainer. "She gave me an even harder sell," Weber says. Again, it was $10,000 to "fix" her.
GoodLife Fitness personal training divisional manager Kelly Musovic says the average personal training package costs $4,000 and a single session can be had for $39.
"If they say no to a particular option, we would advise them of other options," says Musovic, who was dismayed to hear about Weber's story. "We don't want anyone to feel harassed."
Weber insisted both trainers made her feel as though it was the $10,000 route or nothing. She ended up leaving the gym.
Marie Rousseau, 39, is a retail worker in Bryce Canyon, Utah. She recalled a trainer who was pushing her toward a smaller dress size. At the time, the 5-foot, 4-inch tall Rousseau weighed 93 pounds and was recovering from an eating disorder that had almost killed her. Her goal was to gain muscle and strength and go up a few dress sizes, but the trainer told her she should drop to a size 6.
Says Rousseau: "He insisted I had some fat to lose" — a dangerous thing to say to someone who's battled an eating disorder.
Even though the trainer knew about her condition, he "pushed no carb," Rousseau says. "I told him right off the bat that nutrition coaching was unnecessary because I was under the care of a registered dietitian."
The trainer also pushed supplements — ones he wanted to sell her. Rousseau bailed after three sessions.
Richard Cotton, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), says his organization "does not support any supplement sales within the client-trainer relationship." He added that trainers should refer to a registered dietitian when it comes to clients' meal planning.
The horror stories make personal training seem like the Wild West. But Cotton says it's not as wild as it used to be.
"There has been self-policing to improve standards and develop best practices," he says.
Most trainers have some form of certification — ACSM and NSCA are two well-respected groups — but that doesn't guarantee quality.
Both Tumminello and Cotton recommended seeking out a trainer with relevant experience. Seniors, for example, should look for someone who understands how to work with older adults. Cotton is a big fan of word-of-mouth referrals.
That's how Ross finally landed a good trainer: from her cousin's recommendation. Her new trainer had the relevant physical therapy experience.
"He adapted the exercise to my ability," she says.
Tumminello warned against any trainer who insists exercises be done a certain way, saying it shows a lack of understanding of variations in human movement.
"He told me I didn't need to do squats," says Ross, who's been with her current trainer for three years. "He's so knowledgeable and nice to work with."
Rousseau found a better trainer, too. "He would push me just enough where I would gain confidence," she says. "He was more about good form. Working out is more about feeling good now."
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